Writing Beyond Good
Today’s blog post comes from Q Lindsey Barrett
If my three and half years as a submission reader, now editor at Hunger Mountain have taught me anything, it’s that ‘good writing’ isn’t enough to get selected for publication. What I see as I’m making my way through the endless queue of submissions is not a huge variation in writerly talent, no barely-literate writing at one end and a-star-writer-is-born at the other. In fact, most of the stories are competently executed, interspersed with well-turned phrases, fine story telling . . . but rare indeed is the story that compels me to say, “I’ve found it!”
• The numbers game:
Let’s start by making up some numbers to illustrate the difficultly of getting selected for publication. Say at Hunger Mountain we get 100 fiction submissions a month, so 1200 a year. We are a quarterly, so four issues, and let’s say there are 6 short stories in each issue. That means each submission has a 2% shot at being one of the 24 stories selected. Not great odds. Hunger Mountain is one of many journals now publishing web-only stories as well as those in the print journal, making the odds ever so slightly better.
TMR likely gets far more submissions, but is still a quarterly, so prints roughly the same number of stories each year, making the odds of getting into the ‘top tier’ exponentially more dismal.
To be selected as one of the chosen, one of the 24, your story must rise above merely good. To be sure, a number of factors are beyond the writer’s control—editorial idiosyncracy, submission reader taste coupled with the luck of which reader gets which submission, and other such factors which are a topic for another day. For now, let’s just stick to increasing your odds of writing beyond good. Let’s talk about, if ‘good’ isn’t good enough, what does it take to get to ‘enough?’
• Let’s talk talent:
Award-winning writer Samuel R. Delany says, “If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story.” So, good writing is a product of technique, but produces what Delany calls ‘bad fiction,’ that is to say, technically proficient yet banal, dull—even, Delany says, if the writer takes care to use lyrical phrases, musical language, imaginative subject matter.
Delany thinks ‘talent’ makes the difference: “Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.”
While Delany’s description of which writing rises to the top is excellent, the problem I have is that the word ‘talent’ sounds like something inborn, rather than acquired . . . Are we writing teachers all perpetuating a fraud? Are we pretending to teach something which either you have or you don’t? No. While it’s true that students come to teachers at varying levels of what is referred to as ‘talent,’ that talent is a result of early exposure, practice, enthusiasm for the task, practice, learning, and practice.
Let’s focus instead on Delany’s phrase, “makes things happen in the reader’s mind,” as that pretty much sums up what good fiction does. Yes, you say, but how?
• Rise above the stats:
Indeed. How does one rise above the stats? In a stack of manuscripts, whether paper or digital, it’s clear that relationship woes, family squabbles, death of a parent/spouse/child is the fuel for a lot of people’s writing. This common currency of human interaction makes for stories which are universal and relatable. But in wading through the stack, the manuscript reader longs for something they haven’t read a hundred times before, no matter how well written a particular story. Surprise is every editor’s drug of choice. To rise to the top of the manuscript stack, weave the unexpected into your work.
Danger, Will Robinson: Dropping a character, a plot element, an interesting turn of phrase, into a story for its surprise value when it doesn’t naturally arise from the story events has the opposite effect of giving that editor her fix. Like a bad batch of illicit pharmaceuticals, unearned surprises, or sentences so beautifully rendered they remind the reader she’s reading, create a bad experience, ejecting the reader from what John Gardner called ‘the fictional dream.’ (The Art of Fiction)
Here’s the thing–even truly lovely sentences should be necessary to the story.
And then what we notice next is . . .
• A Crazy Little Thing Called Voice:
“Sixty odd years I been muddling my life out of these woods and waters and muck. Crabber’s daughter, born here and bred on catfish and crabbing before the wolves came in ’87. Moved us to Mann’s Harbor they did when the government took the land for the wildlife refuge. Mama and Daddy were old, and didn’t mind the new house with lights and bathrooms. I did. Too much of the wrong kind of noise even for a place what’s a blink of a town like Mann’s Harbor, a jut of firm land with houses bumped out of the ground like knots on a log. The stars was duller what with watch lights glaring all night and road traffic buzzing by on the highway, vacationers droning to Outer Banks beaches in their bloated cars, metal flies flocking to white-sand honey.”
From Debra Rook’s marvelous story, “Where Lost Things Return And The Land Reclaims Her Own.” The elusive and oh-so-important quality of ‘voice.’ The rhythm of the words, speech patterns, word choice, all go into creating voice, an element of writing which, if it can be taught, I haven’t figured out how to teach. But like ‘talent’ it can be developed—it is not an innate quality. It just seems that way because it’s hard to define, hard to teach and writers who are good at it make it look effortless. But develop it we must, because of all the qualities that make a story rise up and say ‘pick me,’ voice is most often cited as why an agent or editor chose an author’s work.
The secret, I think, to developing the quality of ‘voice’ is to read widely, pay attention to the way a variety of people talk and describe things, and note what makes some people distinctive (absent visual characteristics), while others blend into the background. Make sure your characters, whether real-life or fictional, are not background-blenders.
Danger, Will Robinson: Even ‘Everyman’ archetypes must have distinctive mannerisms or qualities or ways of looking at their world.
• Give Your Readers Memorable Characters:
While the excerpt from Rook’s work above demonstrates her unique voice, it also shows the narrator to be a memorable character. Think back to stories and novels you’ve loved. The best keep us thinking about the characters long after we’ve finished reading. Interesting characters is second only to voice in what makes for great stories. Interesting characters. Make your characters amoral, heroic, quieter, wilder, meaner, greener, than real-life people. Even in memoir. I’m not saying to make non-fiction fictional. I’m saying, focus on events that showcase your friends and family, your characters at their most interesting.
Cheryl Strayed’s top-of-the-charts memoir, Wild, isn’t about the time she spent in grad school or waitressing, when she could easily have blended into the student population or restaurant staff—it’s about a time in her life when she was so filled with despair she did a bunch of crazy things, culminating in an ill-advised solo journey. A journey so fraught with physical hardship it healed her troubled mind. And in fiction, Pam Houston’s lovely story, “A Blizzard Under Blue Sky,” tells of a profoundly depressed woman who decides a night alone in the wilderness in winter is just what she needs. We aren’t shown the days the woman wallowed in sorrow, unable to get out of bed—typical depression behavior—face it, who wants to read that? What we see is her nearly freeze to death in an unexpected cold snap; we see that coming so near to dead made alive seem a pretty good option, even though nothing else bringing her down in life changed.
Note that the larger-than-life I’m recommending isn’t the stuff of ham-fisted fiction, bludgeoning the reader with characters described in exclamation-pointed superlatives— The Baddest Cat In Harlem! Most Renowned Artist In History! Quirkiest Pixie To Ever Break A Geek-Boy’s Heart! —characters who could only be played in the movie versions by Richard Roundtree, Charlton Heston, Zooey Deschanel —rather, real people at their most interesting.
Danger, Will Robinson: Quirky, of late, is the most often employed lazy-writer technique used to create ‘interesting’ in lieu of the hard work of characterization. Quirky grows tiresome quite quickly.
Characterization, as with all aspects of good writing, is very hard work indeed. It’s easy to say what a character looks like or is wearing. Memorable characters are revealed to the reader by what they do and say, rather than by description. Atticus Finch might be square-jawed, hazel-eyed, and tall—or he might have a clef in his narrow chin, eyes so dark the iris can’t be distinguished from the pupil, stooped and slight of build—who knows? who cares? If Harper Lee described his physical characteristics in To Kill A Mockingbird, I can’t remember what they were. What I remember is that he acted with courage, he cared for and about his children, he championed the friendless. Memorable characters do out-of-the-ordinary things.
• Create a ‘thicker weave’:
Legendary short story writer and teacher Grace Paley said, “You lose a lot of density” when you only write about events from your own life. Her advice was to reach back through the generations to create a ‘thicker weave’ in your stories. Here is a YouTube video of Paley reading and answering audience questions. While it is worthwhile to watch the whole thing, the relevant parts are from 8:17 – 9:48 and 13:19 – 13:55.
This ‘reaching back through the generations’ creates a story about more than the lives of the main characters. Another way is to . . .
• Make the story bigger than just the main plot:
Look at your characters, whether fictional or family, in the context of the larger world; public events woven into personal story will elevate your prose above the mundane. This technique also helps to set a story in time. Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, provides an excellent example, and begins this way:
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers–goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”
Danger, Will Robinson: Take care to not arbitrarily throw in something from the larger world—whatever you choose must be used in the context of the main story. The Bell Jar is about a young woman’s mental breakdown. When she is hospitalized, she receives electroshock therapy, tying the Rosenberg’s electrocution to story events, and making even more poignant the final phrase of this opening paragraph. Not an arbitrary, tossed-in world event.
The larger-world event needn’t open the story, and needn’t be something huge. Caitlin Horrocks incorporates the larger world, as well as accomplishes Paley’s ‘reaching back through the generations’ in this reference partway through her story “Zolaria”, which I recommended in TMR’s Working Writer Series.
“When Mr. Khoury visited our fifth-grade class, our teacher introduced him as a man there to talk about his “troubled homeland.” He was a man from somewhere else, a troubled country people left and then called ‘home’.”
In fact, this doesn’t refer to an ‘event’ at all; rather an ongoing situation in another country. It is the artful wording of the second sentence that gives the reader insight into Hanna Khoury’s family background as well as insight into the larger world of immigrants.
Best-selling historical novelist Tracy Chevalier advises, “Step away from yourself and look out into the world. You’re not as interesting as you think.”
• Leave room for the reader to participate in the story:
Pam Houston, whose book Cowboys Are My Weakness has much to do with why I became a writer, once said to another participant in a workshop where my work was being critiqued, “But you already know.” What she meant was that the participant had said that thing we hear so often in critique, “I need to know XX sooner.” Houston went on to explain that if the prose caused the reader to form this question, the words had already done their job. The reader already had the answer, even if it didn’t come to the forefront of her mind until later. The reader doesn’t need to be told, and wouldn’t enjoy it if they were told.
Danger, Will Robinson: I’m not talking about contriving a way to withhold information, I’m talking about leaving room for reader participation. In my ongoing and extensive analysis of what makes a reader enjoy a story, it is clear that one of the great pleasures of reading is when a story allows the reader to figure things out, to ‘get’ cultural references, to participate in creating the story from the author’s words, from the images the words evoke.
Not a contrivance or beautiful language or a mystery, something as simple as:
“It is July. We are a miraculous age.”
forms images in the reader’s mind – summer, kids, wonderment. What the writer leaves out creates the story we tell as we’re reading. Neither of those sentences alone creates story, but those two lines combined invite the reader’s participation. That was the opening to Horrock’s “Zolaria.”
If instead Horrocks had spelled out what she was trying to convey– It was mid-summer and we were at that age where summer vacation feels like a miraculous time –that does not invite reader participation. The reader bypasses, skims over, passages where the author has said too much. Remember Houston’s words—if your beta readers, your critique partners, are able to articulate what they ‘needed to know,’ they already ‘know’ it from what you’ve written.
• One last thing—back to the editor’s drug of choice:
Horrocks is also a master of what I call ‘The Shift’—That is, the reader understands that the story is about X, then comes The Shift, and they realize the story is about Y. The aha! moment created by The Shift is one of the happiest story surprises . . . when the reader realizes their previous assumptions are false, yet the truth was right there for them to see all along. Horrocks employs this technique in most, if not all her work, but my favorite example is her story, “In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui,” which was in the Summer 2008 issue of The Gettysburg Review, and in Horrocks’ collection, This Is Not Your City. Unfortunately, to demonstrate how she did it would require far too long a quote than can be used here, but I recommend acquiring a copy of the journal or the collection for those wishing to further their writerly education.
Danger, Will Robinson: Note that I said, “…was right there for them to see all along.” That is key to effective use of The Shift. Layering in elements that make use of people’s preconceived notions, then shining a light on those notions is what leads to the aha! Absent that layering, that groundwork, creates instead, “Say, what?” and the reader feels betrayed.
There is so much more to share about what makes for Writing Beyond Good:
– creating emotional resonance
– knowing where the story should start and taking care to not write past the end
– mastering induction (suggesting the general through the deft deployment of the specific)
– employ compression
– pay attention to the sound and rhythm of sentences
– the ‘so what’ factor
– finding subject matter weighty enough to carry a story
– the art of pacing
And on and on. But I’ll end here. Master the element of surprise, develop your writerly voice, create memorable characters, learn to enlarge the scope of your story, leave room for reader participation, and you’ll turn that frown upside—no, no, I mean you’ll turn re-ject into ac-cept. Thanks for reading.